Clergy Renewal of Vows Service for the Episcopal Diocese of Oklahoma
“Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, ‘Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?’ (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, ‘Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.’ When the great crowd of the Jews learned that he was there, they came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus.” –John 12:1-11
Months ago, I decided to quit drinking. I have chronic migraines and sometimes I face depression. I wondered if maybe something that gives me headaches wasn’t the best for chronic headaches. I wondered if maybe a depressant wasn’t the best beverage for depression.
When I was invited to preach this service, I did not intend to talk about this. But, if I am going to address an audience of clergy, I wonder if my time is best spent addressing the struggles that we face not in committee meetings, and not behind the altar—but in that hidden place, our hearts, our souls, the tender areas of our lives where our callings first began.
I don’t have a particularly exciting story to share with you; I only have the truth of my life and where I felt God was calling me within it. And yet, the decision to set aside something that isn’t serving us, if made, is rarely ever easy and I don’t want to simplify a complex inner journey. I especially don’t want to downplay the fact that I chose to stop drinking alcohol, a substance that people understand to be vital to a social life, great with dinner, and that we understand to be nothing less than the presence of Christ. Yes, it is a hard decision for an extrovert to say no to the substance we love to share at parties, a hard decision for a person who loves to cook as much as she loves to eat, a hard decision for a priest who stands behind an altar twice a week to hold up a glass of wine.
But maybe this decision is simpler than we imagine: I wanted my life to be different. I wanted certain things for myself. I made a list, and—in the sort of way that God speaks to me—I began to feel like maybe this list was possible, through the love and mercy of God, just on the other side of sobriety. Even at just the idea, I began to feel the first inklings of hope. I knew God was extending to me an invitation into the kind of life I wouldn’t want to escape from.* And I’m excited to say that, so far, this has proven true. While I look forward to the joy of Easter morning, I have to admit that it will seem lackluster to me, as I was resurrected months ago.
I made this decision, because I wanted my life to be not in a bottle, but in a jar—a jar of nard. Something poured out to prepare myself and the world for the death that we believe will give us true life. I didn’t want to live in something that pained me, but instead to live and die inside the abundant truth that God shows up to us in pain to give us the nard to withstand it. God’s strength is strength given to us to face the reality of being alive, the reality of being clergy, but it’s a strength that looks less like a flexed muscle and more like a woman, leaning over ankles, wiping feet with hair.
In the telling of this passage from the gospel of Mark, she doesn’t just pour the nard out, she breaks the jar. I love it, because it isn’t meant to be put back together. It’s meant to be given away entirely. The precious gift cannot be salvaged or hoarded. I wanted my life to be in a jar. Broken to be poured. Not meant to be neatly put back together, because any notion that we are neatly anything is a lie. I wanted to see in each day of my life the gifts that cannot be hoarded, only enjoyed, only received fully by hearts that are not numb to the power and presence of God.
As people, and maybe especially as clergy, I think we feel like jars of nard, but we pray we won’t break. We pray we might not have to be poured out. We pray we might be spared, tucked away safe for the time when we “should" be used. But when we think this way, we live as Judas! And we betray not others, but ourselves, because we neglect to see that this moment is the life God has given us, and in this life it is in our best interest to get comfortable with breaking. We must get comfortable with breaking and dying, because no one gets out of here alive or with a body that hasn’t failed us.
I’ve only been ordained a little over 7 years and yet I feel like I’ve already watched many of my beloved clergy friends suffer, most of them suffering silently for far too long. And I trust that many of them—many of us—are still suffering silently, not knowing if there is another way to live. And nothing compounds suffering like making sure we never speak of it. We are called, alongside our many callings, to destigmatize the reality and inevitabilities of being alive. The voice of stigma is nothing less than the voice of evil that we renounced on the day of our baptism. If you stigmatize recovery of any kind, from any thing, you say to the hurting: I liked you better when you didn’t like yourself.
Because you see, when Lazarus walks out of the tomb, Jesus does not pity him. No, he says: Unbind him. Let him go. He is free. Rush to him to remove the bands of cloth that hid him in death, because he is dead no more. And we know that we want to be like him because we no longer want to be hidden in death. We yearn to feel, in our bodies, the fullness of resurrection. Yet, we will help him before we help ourselves, out of fear. But it’s not resurrection that scares us; it is the disrobing. We do not want to have to remove our bands of cloth, because then we will be seen for who we are, and we wonder if we could survive it. But only in that tender place of naked truth will we see ourselves as God sees us: broken, loved, and resurrected, as we are now, and forever.
No, the calling of clergy is not to pray we won’t break. It is to break and then to notice the cracks. The calling of the deacon, the priest, the bishop, the human is to break and to die and to then show a hurting world that we live. This is how we show that we believe in resurrection.
I imagine, because you are breathing, there’s something in your life that, if it were to break, it threatens to break you. Something in your life that, if it broke, you fear you wouldn’t be able to put it or yourself back together again. There’s something in your life that has lied to you, and told you that without it, you’ll lose your community, your love, your vocation, the facets of life that bring you the joy that make being alive worth it. Something twists at your heart. It drags you into the Pit. There is a crack in your heart that is the result of a collision between your fragile soul and the hard surface of life.
And today, as clergy and as people, hear this:
You don’t have to live in secret, because before God we have no secrets.
You don’t have to suffer alone, because you suffer just like the person beside you.
You don’t have to be hidden in death, because you can live your life as a jar of nard—broken, not stored up inside the chasms of your heart, but poured out, given.
Because the calling of the deacon, the priest, the bishop, the calling of a human life is not to pray we won’t break. It is to break and then to notice the cracks. The purpose of life is to break and to die and then show a hurting world that we live. This is how we show that we believe in resurrection.
*This has been a live changing concept for me, and I was introduced to this language for it by Holly Whitaker, founder of The Temper (formerly Hip Sobriety), an integral recovery based program that has become my close community. You can learn more about The Temper and Holly’s work here: https://www.hipsobriety.com/
Photograph: Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, taken by EJW